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ATN Podcast: About those locks for at-large bids

There are lots of teams looking for at-large bids to the playoffs. Problem is, there’s only six of them. If you are new to Division III, or new to playoff contention and don’t know how the D-III playoffs work, this is the week where Keith and Pat will walk you through it. Who are the best candidates for at-large bids? What is this whole pool thing about? We’ll talk it all through for you. Plus, which are the teams on the rise? What key highlights happened below the radar? Pat and Keith answer those questions, plus hand out their game balls, on this week’s Around the Nation Podcast.

The Around the Nation Podcast is a weekly conversation between Pat Coleman and Keith McMillan covering the wide range of Division III football. It drops on Monday morning weekly throughout the season.

Hit play, or subscribe to get this podcast on your mobile device. 
You can subscribe to the Around the Nation Podcast in iTunes. You can also get this and any of our future Around the Nation podcasts automatically by subscribing to this RSS feed: http://www.d3blogs.com/d3football/?feed=podcast
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Triple Take, Week 4: The first Saturday filled with showdowns

This looks like a great weekend, from top to bottom and start to finish. No. 1 UW-Whitewater won a Thursday-night thriller against NAIA No. 1 Morningside, but the action should continue as St. Thomas and St. John’s threaten to set an unofficial Division III attendance mark, and get a visit from SportsCenter, while Wittenberg-Wabash and Wesley-North Central also mark clashes between top-25 teams.

There’s intrigue elsewhere, and the NESCAC finally joins the party as well. With more than 100 games this weekend and most of D-III’s 247 teams in action, we realize you can’t follow everything. Around the Nation columnist Ryan Tipps, editor and publisher Pat Coleman and I provide our seven-point primers on where to watch for road wins, great finishes and potential upsets.

— Keith McMillan

Game of the week

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 5 Wesley at No. 22 North Central. This is a non-conference clash involving two of the most successful programs of the past decade, and each would still be in the same place in its chase of its conference’s automatic playoff spot with a loss. Yet it’s a huge game. It’s the kind players gear up for because they know it’s top competition, and it’s the one they’ll remember years later. It will tell us on the outside a bit about the national picture. Wesley QB Joe Callahan (eight TDs, 0 INTs) is one of the nation’s best. From Jeff Thorne’s comments around the 5:20 mark in NCC’s Red Zone show, sounds like RB Austin Bruenig (who had a long TD run against UW-Platteville) gets first crack at replacing Oshayne Brown, but that several backs will get carries.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: No. 12 St. Thomas at No. 8 St. John’s. There are other great games taking place, but we all know — as does ESPN — that the Tommie-Johnnie game is week’s big dog. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the pick from all three of us.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: No. 1 UW-Whitewater at Morningside and No. 12 St. Thomas at No. 8 St. John’s. One of these games was played before Triple Take was published but both are worthy of separate recognition as the game of the week. For Whitewater, hey, no pressure, but all of Division III’s reputation was riding on your play on Thursday night.

Surprisingly close game

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Misericordia at Stevenson. The Cougars are in their fourth year since starting football, and after a 2-28 first three seasons, the magic is supposed to happen. Instead, 0-3 Misericordia is coming off 37-7 and 28-7 home losses. Stevenson is 3-0 and has had a morale-boosting win over one-time MAC power Lycoming. These are the kinds of games players take easily, and look clear past. They’re young adults and are human; who can blame them? But Misericordia won’t just lay down — they’ve given up only one first-quarter score the past two weeks. It might take some time before the Mustangs pull away in this one.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Trinity (Texas) at Pacific Lutheran. Last year, PLU rolled to the tune of 38-14 on the road, but I think we’re looking at very different teams from both the Lutes and the Tigers in 2015. Trinity seems better poised to pull this one out, but it’s not going to be by the same hefty margins of the past two weeks.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: No. 10 John Carroll at Baldwin Wallace. Honestly, if this game is not surprisingly close, it will be the Blue Streaks’ first game this season that isn’t. I’m holding out for the possibility that John Carroll might approach last season’s performance and be ready to challenge for the conference title at the end of the season, but it’s fair to say they haven’t looked that way so far. Meanwhile, Baldwin Wallace bounced back from the debacle in its opener vs. Bluffton to beat Ohio Northern last week.

Most likely Top 25 team to be upset

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: No. 10 John Carroll at Baldwin Wallace. It’s a rare week in that almost every top-25 team (save for Mount Union, Thomas More and Bethel) has a matchup it could lose, and yet it was tough to convince myself of one that fit here. Empire 8 members Utica and Alfred are off to good starts, but Cortland State and Ithaca have played such good competition, it’s hard to pick against them. Centre was a thought. So were Johns Hopkins and Rowan. But they’re all playing too well. John Carroll is the team where the jury is most out. Are they a team that could surpass the Purple Raiders? Or could they lose to a team that lost to Bluffton in Week 2? Consider this a challenge for the Blue Streaks to prove to national onlookers that what they’ve built was more than just lucking into a great quarterback the past few years. The six sacks vs. Heidelberg last week were a start.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: No. 21 Centre, at Chicago. With Rhodes’ unexpected fall last week, Chicago is positioned to be the best challenger to unseat Centre at the top of the SAA — so there’s a whole lot riding on the outcome of this game. Chicago’s new quarterback, Burke Moser, came into the season with minimal collegiate experience but in two games has passed for more than 600 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions. He has a wealth of receiving targets and veteran defense to help keep him in prime field position to reach the end zone.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: No. 5 Wesley, at No. 22 North Central. We don’t usually pick Top 25 matchups as upset picks but I think this is one where the teams are ranked far enough apart that Wesley is clearly favored, even on the road. I think North Central will bounce back, although I am taking a chance that running back Oshayne Brown will return for the Cardinals. I think there are still some unanswered questions about Wesley and for them to fly halfway across the country and go play a Top 25 team seems to me ripe for an upset.

Pick a team that scores an impressive road win

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: UW-River Falls at Southwestern. Since the Falcons nearly pulled off the upset of the century against UW-Whitewater back in Week 11 of last year, they’ve gone on to do, well, nothing. Opening with two losses and a trip to Texas isn’t necessarily a recipe to get right, but it willc happen this week. Southwestern is all over the board, following a 77-6 Week 1 loss with a 7-6 win against McMurry, and then a 46-37 loss to East Texas Baptist in which it attempted a two-point conversion to tie the game with 2:41 left. But if our conference rankings mean anything, a lower-tier WIAC team should still be able to go to Texas and beat a third-year SCAC program. We’ll be watching intently.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: No. 1 UW-Whitewater, at Morningside. Against who? Morningside is the Iowa team that is currently No. 1 in the NAIA polls. While a Whitewater win against Morningside wouldn’t mean as much in terms of playoffs as a win would against a top Division III team, it’s still going to be a talker. And, best of all, this is a game that everyone in the D-II community (all 247 football-playing teams of us) could band together for in support of our defending national champions. (Note: I typed this item up on Tuesday, and we’ll know by the time Triple Take is published whether I’m right or wrong.)
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Carthage, at Lakeland. The Red Men are going to be hurting for road wins, possibly just wins in general, this season. They were already blown out by St. Norbert earlier this season. It’s a struggling program, but Carthage got better from Week 1 to Week 2 and with another strong performance, a win should be possible here in Week 4.

Pick a game that’s decided in the fourth quarter

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Framingham State and Western Connecticut State. Another week, another MASCAC pick. But these are the two teams most worth watching from the conference, and with the Rams visiting Danbury, we can expect a close finish. The Rams have a great statistical profile: Nine takeaways in three games, 94.6% in red-zone scoring and a time of possession average of more than 35 minutes. QB Matthew Silva is completing more than seven passes per game to both Marcus Grant and Tevin Jones. Western Conn. responds with QB Michael Nicol, who has rushed for 384 yards and five TDs and has passed for 84 and zero. Should be a fun one.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Alfred at No. 24 Ithaca. The Bombers showed last week against Hobart how wicked their defense could be. Now it’s time to prove that they’re not a fluke. Alfred, at 3-0 and a traditionally worthy E8 opponent, is certainly not getting overlooked. This is a stiff September test for both of these squads, and I expect it to be close and still quite a fight in the final period.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: Minnesota-Morris at Iowa Wesleyan. In Kickoff, I identified this as the game in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference with pride on the line. Now, Morris has already won a game, vs. Greenville at that, so Morris has already started to defend its pride this season. IWC broke into double digits last season after scoring nine and six points in their first two games. These two teams with really small rosters will be on somewhat more equal footing than they often have been.

The NESCAC makes its fashionably late entrance this weekend. Give us any prediction.

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: One of the Maine teams wins its opener. All three are at home. The best bet is Williams at Bowdoin, since a Bates win over Amherst or a Colby win over Trinity would be a major shock. Both the Ephs and Polar Bears were 2-6 last season and return a modest number of starters (15 and 13). But Coach J.B. Wells built a winner at Endicott, and has a chance to begin his tenure at one of the NESCAC’s traditional also-rans with a win.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: Hamilton beats Tufts. Hamilton will break its 20-game losing skid. The Continentals line up against Tufts, and it will largely come down to which team’s quarterback will be able to play well and command the offense better. Tufts’ Alex Snyder, the preseason’s projected starter, has some experience under his belt but he definitely had some kinks that needed ironing out. For Hamilton, Chase Rosenberg is likely back for his third year leading the team under center, but there has to be some hesitations since Rosenberg has yet to get a win under his belt.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: LaDarius Drew’s return won’t be enough for Wesleyan. Having one of the premier running backs in the conference return from an injury which kept him out in 2014 will definitely boost the Cardinals’ prospects this season, but not in the opening week vs. Middlebury. The Panthers, on the other hand, might run the table.

They’ll be on your radar

Keith McMillan
Keith’s take: Elmhurst at Simpson. As the kind of programs who wouldn’t surprise us by challenging for their conference title, or finishing 7-3, 5-5 or 3-7, this is an intriguing Bluejays-Storm matchup. Simpson gave up two long TD catches to Artie Checchin and then a 14-play scoring drive just before the half against Elmhurst’s conference rival, Illinois Wesleyan. Was that just a game that got away or a throughly deserved 49-7 butt-whipping. Elmhurst’s early 31-17 win over Loras looks better as the Duhawks pile up yards and points, but I still don’t know what to make of the Bluejays.
Ryan Tipps
Ryan’s take: The Heidelberg at Ohio Northern game. I haven’t been particularly shy that I’m shaky on every OAC team below Mount Union. This is not the season we’ll have a stellar No. 2 OAC team shine in the postseason. I think John Carroll is down, Heidelberg is already 0-2, and last week Ohio Northern lost to Baldwin Wallace, which has its own W-L baggage. The Student Princes and Polar Bears are meeting for pride as much as anything else at this point, and last year’s 69-52 outcome leaves us wondering if we’ll see some defense emerge this time around.
Pat Coleman
Pat’s take: The St. Norbert-Illinois College game. St. Norbert doesn’t play Monmouth in the course of the regular Midwest Conference schedule, so this is one of the best analogies we have this season for a potential Midwest Conference championship game preview.

We invite you to add your predictions in the comments below. Download the Around the Nation podcast on Mondays, where Pat and Keith review the picks that were prescient, and those that were terribly off base.

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Triple Take, Week 5: Let the conference rumbles begin

Linfield has lined up against Chapman and Redlands so far, and now PLU will get its crack at Linfield. (Photo by Dan Harris, d3photography.com)

Linfield has lined up against Chapman and Redlands so far, and now PLU will get its crack at the Wildcats. (Photo by Dan Harris, d3photography.com)

If it hasn’t already where you’re from, conference play begins in Week 5. From the ASC to the WIAC (and places in between — the CCIW, ECFC, IIAC, MIAA, ODAC and SCIAC get underway, while all but one game has yet to be played in NJAC and NWC), the games against familiar rivals are on deck. Twenty-four of the 28  conferences come with an automatic bid, so even though it’s too early to talk postseason, it’s never too early to consider playoff implications. Saturday’s games mean something long term.

In short, though, we have a doozy upon us this weekend. Pat, Ryan and I sift through which of the 244 teams are most worth keeping an eye on, via seven categories.

 — Keith McMillan

Game of the week
Keith’s take: No. 22 Concordia-Moorhead at No. 12 Bethel. The game in Washington, Pa. is more likely to be a defacto conference title game, but the one in Arden Hills, Minn. has even more on the line, and could feature the best-played football in the country on Saturday. The Cobbers and Royals each practice the lost art of playing defense, ranking in the national top 20 in total (averaging 263 and 241 yards allowed per game) and scoring defense (a shade under 13 points per game each). Although Bethel is already on thin ice because of its season-opening loss to Wartburg, the MIAC has sent two teams to the playoffs nine times since the expansion in 1999, and this might end up a preview of this year’s duo. On top of all that, this insane thing happened last time these teams met at Bethel, and the specter of that game hangs over this one.
Ryan’s take: No. 5 Linfield at No. 14 Pacific Lutheran. I’m filing my take early, so I don’t get to see what Pat and Keith have written, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they chose this game, too. Never mind the fact that it’s a matchup between top-25 teams, but it has also grown into a marquee conference clash over the past few seasons. And it’s almost becoming a tradition for these two squads to meet twice in the fall, once in the regular season and then again in the first round of the playoffs. Not surprisingly, both are undefeated, and both have stout defenses. And because Linfield is excelling offensively with the pass while PLU is doing so with the run, these two teams would be candidates for the “contrasting styles” question farther down in Triple Take, if they weren’t so highly ranked, that is.
Pat’s take: No. 20 Thomas More at Washington and Jefferson. While all of those conferences listed above are getting started, the PAC is deep into its conference schedule, which started in Week 1 because of the conference’s expansion to include Carnegie Mellon and Case. With Thomas More already having taken a loss and the committee having passed over 1-loss PAC teams in the past because of strength of schedule, there may only be room for one PAC team in this year’s playoffs. Barring a later upset, the winner of this game will be in the driver’s seat to get that spot.

Surprisingly close game
Keith’s take: Gallaudet at Anna Maria. The Bison won nine games, made the playoffs and had an NFL prospect last season. The AmCats are in their sixth football season, and have six wins total. But you can expect this one to be surprisingly close, if only because neither side can really score. Anna Maria has seven touchdowns in three games this season, but that’s seven more than Gallaudet, who have been outscored 50-2 so far. They’re part of the reason why, in contrast with conferences like the ASC, OAC and ODAC, where teams average more than 33 points per game, the ECFC is the nation’s lowest-scoring conference, at 15.41 points per team per game. There will probably be some success for both offenses on Saturday, but the casts have changed since last season, so don’t expect a playoff team vs. doormat blowout.
Ryan’s take: Millsaps at Hendrix. I’m looking forward to seeing this showdown happen. After the Majors got blasted by East Texas Baptist last week, there are a lot of questions hanging around for a team that was 9-1 last year but starts 2014 at 1-2. Tackling needs to improve; turnovers need to stop. ETBU’s 715 yards of total offense is a scary thing, and Millsaps should be scared if the team can’t keep those kinds of numbers in check going forward. But while Millsaps is a team on the slide, Hendrix appears to be one on the rise. A 3-0 start is something for the Warriors to be very happy about, and the fact that they were able to have their offense step up in games, as well as the defense to shine, shows how versatile this second-year program can be.
Pat’s take: Washington U. at Berry. One could play the comparative scores game because already this year, Rhodes has played both Berry and Wash U. But I just expect this to be close because it’s a bit of a trip for the Bears and Berry is getting better. They only lost to Rhodes 12-0 and lost 28-27 at LaGrange.

Most likely top-25 team to be upset
Keith’s take: No. 18 UW-Platteville. I ruled out the top-25 clashes as picks here, and the luster is off games like Salisbury at No. 7 St. John Fisher and No. 8 Wartburg at Central. Even Louisiana College at No. 4 Wesley isn’t as exciting as it first appeared. So to truly go out on a limb, I’ll take 0-3 UW-Eau Claire, playing at Carson Park in the WIAC opener. The Blugolds have only scored 24 points this season, which makes this an even more risky pick, but they’ve played three perennial midwest powers  St. Thomas, St. John’s and Wheaton. UW-Platteville makes four current top 25 teams in four weeks for UW-EC, and if the Blugolds are not demoralized, they could catch the Pioneers sleeping. Last year, Eau Claire led at halftime and after a 98-yard third-quarter kick return before Platteville scored the final four TDs. UW-P this year has been a bit of an enigma, winning by 60 in Week 1 and squeezing past Dubuque in Week 2, and it’s had two weeks to stew over a 28-7 loss to North Central. So the upset is no small task.
Ryan’s take: No. 20 Thomas More. While this qualifies for this category because the Saints are in the Top 25, it barely counts as an upset when the opponent is undefeated conference rival Washington and Jefferson. Not to mention that both are statistically in the top 10 in total offense in the nation.
Pat’s take: No. 25 Lycoming, I suppose. The MAC unbeaten teams will start to knock each other off this week. In order to believe Stevenson can beat Lycoming, however, one has to think that Stevenson is ready to make a big leap forward. The Mustangs were fairly dominant in Week 1 vs. North Carolina Wesleyan but have won the next three games by a touchdown apiece, so they’re barely hanging onto this 4-0. They won’t be able to get away with 4-for-18 passing this week.

Pick a team that will open conference play in dramatic fashion
Keith’s take: Willamette, vs. George Fox. The dramatics for the Bearcats might be of the record-setting variety as opposed to the last-second type. Willamette rushes for 285 yards a game, has had two weeks since a 42-28 win at Cal Lutheran, and faces first-year George Fox, which has allowed 1,028 yards in its two losses. The real curiosity might be finding out just how many NWC contenders there are, which means you’ll have to pay attention to Linfield-PLU and Whitworth-Pacific as well this weekend.
Ryan’s take: Redlands, at Pomona-Pitzer. An 0-2 record doesn’t tell us much if those two games came against No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor and No. 5 Linfield. The Bulldogs were expected to lose both of them (maximum chalk). But this week is Redlands’ chance to show what they learned from those experiences and put the lessons into action. Opponent Pomona-Pitzer should be a great way to make sure everything is clicking, to earn a win – and be set for the following week against Cal Lutheran and later against the rest of the SCIAC.
Pat’s take: Augustana, vs. Elmhurst. The CCIW opens this weekend with the potential for three blowouts, while this game, between teams expected to be in the middle of the conference, has the potential for some heroics. It matched a couple of players who have already had standout individual performances this year: Augustana defensive back Tim Maroder (four interceptions vs. Loras) and Elmhurst running back Josh Williams (306 rushing yards at Olivet).

Which team lost badly last week, but will bounce back?
Keith’s take: Southern Virginia, at Kean. Since these teams lost 47-7 to No. 4 Wesley and 73-7 to No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor last Saturday, facing each other should be a relief. Both teams are 0-3. The Knights have a significant road trip to North Jersey ahead, but they’ve faced three high-powered offenses in Methodist, Guilford and Wesley. Kean has managed just 49 points total this season. (Millsaps, facing Hendrix after a 68-15 loss to ETBU, is a candidate here as well.)
Ryan’s take: Williams, at Bates. Sure, it’s tough to come off of a 38-0 loss to Trinity (Conn.), but if Williams can channel some of the success it found two weeks ago in its opener from quarterback Austin Lommen and running back Alex Scyocurka, then there’s a good chance that the Ephs can look sharp this weekend against Bates.
Pat’s take: UW-Oshkosh, vs. UW-Stout. The Titans had a bye this past week, but they are 0-3 coming into this game, having not played a single Division III school. Getting to play UW-Stout will be better than playing South Dakota State, that’s for sure.

Pick a winner in a matchup of contrasting styles
Keith’s take: LaGrange, at Maryville. The Panthers contrast with themselves, much less the other team. LaGrange, behind QB Graham Craig, has the nation’s fifth-most-prolific passing offense and the 227th-best passing defense. They keep it interesting though, scoring between 28 and 35 each time out, allowing between 27 and 37, and having a two-point loss, a one-point win and two overtime wins. Across the way, Maryville brings a 286-yard-per-game rushing attack (11th-best nationally) and a scoring average of  get this  28.8 points per game.
Ryan’s take: Guilford, vs. Washington and Lee. Well, it’s almost unfair when I look at the contrast between the Quakers and Generals. Guilford has one of the best passing games in the nation, and, just as importantly, it is third statistically in turnover margin. Washington and Lee, on the other hand, slots in at No. 168 in turnover margin, being negative-2 on the season. And they have almost no pass game to speak of, relying on their ground attack  which isn’t close to where it’s been in recent seasons. Sure enough, these two teams contrast each other, just not in a flattering way.
Pat’s take: Illinois College, vs. Ripon. After two losses in a row, the Blueboys need to get well, and fast. The good thing is that neither of those games counted against IC’s conference record in the Midwest Conference South Division, and this week’s game vs. Ripon won’t, either. The run-heavy Red Hawks are also 1-2, but with the only win vs. Rockford. Meanwhile, most people should know Illinois College likes to throw the ball.

They’ll be on your radar
Keith’s take: Bethany. Taking it on the chin from Mount Union in Week 1 perhaps was a wise strategy. The Bison have three wins since, including two on the road, and a 33-27 victory against Waynesburg last week. After 35 carries for just 75 yards in a 58-7 loss to the Purple Raiders, Bethany’s ground game has been stout. They’re running the ball an average of 46 times per game for almost 200 yards a week, with a three-headed attack: Running backs Jalen Holmes and Brandon Hill, and quarterback Brian Vales. Case Western Reserve has only allowed 83 yards per game rushing, so this clash will be worth watching.
Ryan’s take: Kalamazoo. I’m owning up to my mistake from last week, when I wrote about this game a week before it was to happen. So a cut-and-paste from that, which still applies today: I picked Benedictine in Kickoff to perform better this season than it is, and because the squad has stumbled each week, we’re now staring down a game between two winless teams. K-zoo has faced decent opposition as a whole, and the Hornets have shown that they are more able to hang with the team on the other sidelines. The Eagles’ competition has been good (their opponents are a combined 8-1), but nothing says trial by fire like K-zoo’s game against Wheaton. I think the Hornets will be better prepared for this one.
Pat’s take: The Rhodes-Chicago winner. This is a key Pool B game on Saturday, a matchup of unbeatens. Rhodes put up 41 on Chicago in Memphis in 2013, winning 41-34, but expect a lower-scoring game.